From the archive: could a computer predict the result of the 1970 World Cup?

A computer with less power than your phone had sent men to the moon in 1969, so getting one to predict the 1970 Mexico World Cup winner for the Observer Magazine should have been nailed on (‘Can England do it again? Computer forecast of the World Cup winner’, 10 May 1970).

Look away now if you want to find out the made-up result later… It finished England 3 Brazil 2 (after extra time). Spoiler alert: it got the winner wrong and the score. And the fact it went to extra time. And one of the teams. But it did correctly predict that Brazil would be in the final. On the surface it does look suspiciously like the computer had simply chosen the previous winner (England in 1966) and Brazil because they were… Brazil.

Our sports columnist David Hunn fed in the relevant facts on all 16 teams to computer Elliott 803
But no, the Observer sports columnist David Hunn had actually fed in the relevant facts on all 16 teams to computer Elliott 803 to produce his computer-match report, with the help of some ‘teenage mathematical prodigies’ at Dulwich College. They had some recent form – calling the winner of the 1969 Grand National.

Hunn wrote that Elliott ‘sucks in facts like a vacuum cleaner swallowing dried peas, chattering as he does so in a rather vulgar way’. When they fed in the height above sea level and expected heat of the grounds where matches would be played, it was as if the machine itself couldn’t play under such conditions and – oddly poetically – ‘burped “overflowing, overflowing”, his little blue light pulsating madly’.

Hunn wrote that ‘the moment’s joy was almost genuine’. In the real world, West Germany knocked England out in the quarter finals by the same score that Elliott predicted England would beat Brazil by. Brazil beat Italy 4-1 in the final.

Will England win next year in Qatar if they qualify? Here’s my prediction – feed in all the relevant data and ‘computer says no’ will be the answer.